Howard fires prison chief over debacle

Labour in scapegoat charge
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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

Derek Lewis, the head of the Prison Service, was sacked yesterday after a damning inquiry into the Parkhurst escape - amid claims that he was being "scapegoated" for the errors of the Home Secretary.

Michael Howard resisted opposition calls to accept the blame for a Prison Service, judged by Sir John Learmont's inquiry to be in deep crisis, and to resign. Mr Lewis immediately went on the offensive, accusing the Home Secretary of political interference and blurring lines of responsibility.

The controversy is bound to undermine Mr Howard yet further, following last week's extraordinary assault on his new sentencing proposals by Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice.

Mr Lewis took the rare step of publishing a letter to the Home Secretary after Mr Howard had told the Commons that Sir John "has not found that any policy decision of mine, directly or indirectly, caused the escape" from Parkhurst.

The report by Sir John, the former Quartermaster General, followed a nine-month inquiry into prison service security after the breakout in January of three lifers from Parkhurst top security prison on the Isle of Wight. It condemned "a chapter of errors at every level and a naivety that defies belief". Lack of leadership and "lax and unprofessional" management at the top were compounded by "disastrous indecision and apathy" on the ground.

His 127 recommendations for root and branch reform included the building of a super-secure Alcatraz-style jail for the country's 200 most dangerous high-risk prisoners.

Mr Howard, anxious to acquit himself, went out of his way in the Commons to emphasise that Sir John had found that "responsibilities ultimately reach Prisons Board level and that the criticism stops there". He said later: "If these criticisms had been made of me I would have gone but they were not ...You have to look at what and at whom the criticisms were directed." He rejected "absolutely" any allegations of ministerial interference.

But Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, said he could find not any references in the report which cleared Mr Howard. "Given the state of the Prison Service today, the way in which it has been run ragged by continual ministerial interference, the constant changes of policy, will you not now understand that if anyone is to go, it must be you?" he asked.

Last night the Home Office said Mr Lewis' severance package was still being negotiated. But the former television executive had already been put on probation last April by Mr Howard, following huge criticism of the Prison Service.

Mr Lewis was told that his initial three-year contact - at pounds 125,000 a year, plus bonus, and due to end in January 1996 - would not be renewed. As well as the Whitemoor and Parkhurst debacles, there was the suicide of Fred West at Winson Green riots at Everthorpe, accusations of murder against two prisoners on home leave and the controversial movement of IRA prisoners just after the ceasefire.

Sources suggested that it was because Mr Lewis had failed to act on a specific warning about poor security at Parkhurst, following the IRA escape from Whitemoor, that he was finally dismissed. Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, had taken the unusual step of alerting both Mr Lewis and the Home Secretary. Mr Lewis had apparently said all was well.

The withering report by Sir John left no margin for further error. Parkhurst had been a blunder which will "haunt the service for many years to come", he said.

But the sudden sacking of Mr Lewis - appointed in 1992 on a reforming prison agenda set by Lord Woolf in the aftermath of the Strangeways riot, but four months later called upon to implement a very different regime - introduces yet more instability into a service already suffering from low morale, prison overcrowding and the recognised difficulties of privatisation.

Brendan O'Friel, chairman of the Prison Governors' Association, said: "Mr Lewis's departure will be a considerable shock to the service and with all the problems and shocks we have had, it will add to the burden we have."

Mr Lewis' treatment may mean finding a successor to take on such a poisoned brief is a tall order Richard Tilt, the present director of custody, has stepped into the breach on a temporary basis.

Learmont: The main points

n The highest risk prisoners should be housed in a purpose-built high security jail.

n Parkhurst should be down-graded as soon as possible.

n Armed response units should be set up for prisons.

n The director-general of the Prison Service should have regular contact with those with operational responsibilities.

n Better training for all staff.

n The director-general must balance keeping ministers informed with the need to run the Prison Service.

n The Prison Service to take urgent action to cut down the mountain of paperwork.

Chapter of errors, page 3

Lewis letter, page 3

Another view, page 18

Leading article, page 18

Andrew Marr, page 19